The New Old School: Illahe Vineyards

This profile originally appeared in Oregon Wine Pioneers (Vine Lives, 2015). NB: Photos are illustrative, not from Illahe.

Typewriters are by no means rare in Oregon. The Smith-Corona in the Illahe Vineyards office is not, however, a hipster accessory. Nor is the chalkboard where someone has scrawled: “Buy more chalk”. Or the phonograph and four-foot high wooden speakers bookending crates of classic rock LPs in the corner of the warehouse. National sales manager Bethany Ford hunts for seating: “We had folding chairs, but Brad didn’t like ’em.”

She can poke fun at Illahe’s winemaker because he’s also her husband (they met working at a winery). Her father-in-law Lowell Ford, who co-owns the vineyard with wife Pauline, helps her squeeze scavenged non-folding chairs into the cramped office which – in addition to typewriter, chalkboard, books and papers – is cluttered with beakers, coiled glass tubes, pipettes, unfamiliar mechanical contraptions, glasses and bottles. The single small window gives a view of gunmetal clouds. Lowell and Bethany chat about their new horses, a team of Norwegian Fjords.

They already own Percherons, a breed of French draft horse. “We wanted smaller horses to mow with,” says Bethany. “We were going to get one but I found this team. If you find a team that was trained together it’s pretty bad horse manners to separate them.”

“They’re brothers and they’re just devoted to each other,” Lowell remarks softly.

Family matters at Illahe. As does quality, craft, and individualism.

There is something characteristically, stubbornly Oregonian about the way three generations of Fords (counting Brad and Bethany’s young son, who helps Granddad Lowell drive the tractor) draw deep from the well of the past to nourish the future of Willamette Valley wine.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Before you jump to any hasty conclusions, it’s Brad who is the driving force behind Illahe’s embrace of traditional methods. His father Lowell is as responsible as anyone for the modernisation of Oregon’s wine industry, thanks to his work founding the Northwest Viticulture Center at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. A grape grower since the early ’80s, Lowell suggested the course to his colleagues after he retired from his job as the college’s Dean of Students in 1998. They agreed to give it a try and it was soon so over-subscribed they had to hire more instructors. “The students were really interested,” Lowell notes. “A lot people in my class went on to establish vineyards and wineries.” I nod. I’ve already met several Chemeketa alumni including the proprietors of A Blooming Hill, Bjornson and Plum Hill.

Brad, an aspiring writer with a Master’s degree in the classics, followed in his father’s footsteps at Chemekta. First as a teacher and grant writer, then as a viticulture student.

“He surprised me,” Lowell says of his son. “He was a grant writer, and teaching poetry part-time. He said ‘I’m bored to death’.”

Talk turned to Brad getting involved in the 80-acre vineyard Lowell bought as a retirement project and dubbed ‘Illahe’ – the Chinook word for ‘earth’.

“I said, ‘you need to go back to college because you don’t know chemistry’.” So Brad did, taking classes at Chemeketa and Portland State University.

“Brad has a real brain for chemistry,” Bethany beams. “He took organic chem at PSU and got the best grade in the class.”

There is still no sign of Brad in the flesh – he’s somewhere in the warehouse – but his wife and father’s refulgent pride intrigues me. Bethany talks about the peddle-powered pump he built for transferring wine into the barrels. Lowell speaks fondly of his son pitching in to build a pole barn. Buying horses were Brad’s idea, as was their ‘1899’ blend, made using strictly pre-industrial methods (“1899 never touched dry ice, canned nitrogen, enzymes, stainless steel, forklifts, packaged yeast, electric pumps, or filters,” reads the website’s description. Bethany adds that Brad turned off the warehouse lights and lit candles while they racked the barrels.) It’s easy to guess who’s behind the record player and LP collection. Is the mysterious Brad just contrary? What do these deliberate anachronisms signify?

Bethany pours Illahe’s sold-out 2012 Bon Sauvage Pinot Noir, a spicy wine with a cherry and licorice nose and a mouthfeel like oiled silk. “This is all-native fermentation. Instead of adding packaged yeast we let the vats ferment on their own,” she explains. “It’s how they used to do it in Burgundy. Native yeasts are risky. They can cause a lot of spoilage but they also create a really interesting wine.”

Brad finally sidles into the office, looking like he’d rather be somewhere else.

“We were talking about you,” Bethany smiles.

“I hear you’re really good at chemistry,” I say, hoping he warms to praise.

I get a sharp, blue-eyed glance from behind thick glasses and an abrupt: “It’s not too hard to memorize little molecules.”

Lowell already mentioned Brad helping in the family’s old vineyard as a kid, so I try again: “But you grew up knowing about wine?”

“A little bit, uh huh. Not a lot.”

Bethany jumps in to steer the conversation. Brad adds an occasional “um hmmm”. At first it’s hard to tell if this is reserve, shyness or plain boredom but gradually a streak of bone-dry humor emerges. Asked how wine-making compares to his previous career he takes a long pause: “The difference now is, I don’t work in an office.”

Photo by Doug Kelley on Unsplash

He warms, though, reminiscing about his mentor Russ Raney, the former owner of Evesham Wood. “His wine was only $20 a bottle. It didn’t make any economic sense to me [to price it that low] when it was selling out as soon as we bottled it. So I asked him and he said, ‘I want my neighbors to be able to buy it.’ That was it. That was his explanation. He loved the people he lived around and knew they couldn’t afford more. I liked that a lot.”

This burst of enthusiasm says a lot about Brad, the winery, and how it operates. Everything about Illahe from the candle-light racking sessions to its LIVE and Salmon Safe certifications testifies to an unspoken but clear ethos: how you do a thing matters. The Fords – Brad, in particular, seem highly attuned to the idea that the process is more important than the outcome. Though an admirable philosophy, this is an idea most businesses eschew in practice because it is seen as antithetical to profit.

But the family has made a living from the land long enough to understand that making wine in Oregon isn’t an ordinary business proposition. It has a high level of inherent, unmitigable risk. Lowell and Bethany swap dates, trying to decide in which year climate dealt the toughest hand. Was it 2013’s record-breaking rainfall? The cold summer of 2011? Or sodden 2007, which wine critics wrote off before the vintage was even bottled? “I poured water out of my boots in ’84,” Lowell recalls, settling the issue.

In 2013 a Pacific typhoon dumped seven inches of rain in two days during harvest. Some producers carried on picking, despite the fact sodden grapes produce dilute wine. Brad, however, got on the phone and literally called the workers in, gambling (successfully, as it happened) on enough subsequent sunshine to dry the crop and allow it to be picked in good condition.

In 2011 they bit their nails through October, hoping the rain would hold off till the grapes ripened. “We were lucky. If we didn’t have that long Indian summer we wouldn’t have had a harvest.” Bethany says this casually, but no harvest is the wine-making equivalent of hitting an iceberg. No fruit means no wine means no sales means a total loss of an entire year’s investment of capital and labor. It’s the worst thing that could happen and, in Oregon, it can happen.

Dealing with Oregon’s climatic vagaries is as much a philosophical as a business decision. Plenty of wineries use technology and chemistry to even out variable fruit or smooth over tough vintages. Brad’s genius as a winemaker is in relinquishing the idea that uniformity is a virtue. This contrariness, if you want to call it that, is what makes Illahe wine so good, so distinctive. As Bethany puts it: “We want to keep the characteristics of the grapes, the vineyard, the winery and not change them. We don’t want to just make wine for scores or for people’s palates, [we want] to make the wine the way it should be made on the site.”

Brad tells me Kafka is one of his favourite writers. “I squished a cockroach this morning. I hope it wasn’t Gregor,” he deadpans. Absurd, implacable misfortunes hit Kafka’s characters like tornadoes. The lesson: you can’t control life, but you can choose how to live.

For the Ford clan, this means doing things the old-fashioned way, even if it’s the hard way. One of their current projects is casting pithoi – clay vessels modelled on what the ancient Greeks used to ferment wine – and digging a cave to store them. (Brad’s lobbying for no electricity, though Bethany wants it wired.) Each year on Earth Day they have an open-house so people can meet the horses, taste the wine and learn about sustainable growing practices. Illahe’s output is what Brad drily calls “lower-middle class” (about 8000 cases in 2014) because its labor-intensive techniques are antithetical to big production. But then, Kafka didn’t write blockbusters. What he did with words, Illahe does with wine: use craft and imagination to create something unique and insistently evocative of it origin.

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